“The Current War” promises to bring to light the hidden history of electricity

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When most of us turn on the lights in the morning, we don’t think about where that power comes from. We don’t wonder how the electricity gets produced, or how it reaches us, and we certainly don’t imagine if it could have been different. The Current War aims to fix that, and the answers to those questions are anything but simple. The nature of modern electricity and, through it, the modern world itself was defined by a “war of currents” fought between three men at the end of the 19th century. More than 100 years later this titanic struggle has been reimagined on the big screen. Before going to see the movie, read this brief summary of this little-remembered historical epic and the three enemies who, together, made the world what it is today.

Thomas Edison, played by Benedict Cumberbatch

Thomas Edison is most often remembered in connection with the early days of electricity, he invented the light bulb after all, but his electrical system is not the one we use today. Edison proposed to power his light bulbs with direct current, a form of electricity that could only be transmitted about a mile before decaying. In addition, direct current required every location that used power to be attached directly to the generator by a continuous line. In modern terms, imagine that every house or apartment in the city had a single piece of wire that ran all the way to the nearest power station. That power station would have to be relatively nearby because of the distance limits. Approximately 45 different power stations would have been needed to power the city of Grand Rapids, assuming efficient planning. Needless to say this was not exactly a viable system and, if it had survived to modern times, it would have been difficult in most big cities to see the sky around all the wires. So what happened instead?

While Edison’s cables clogged the sky, Tesla could be found reading the newspaper during experiments.

While less famous than Edison, Nikola Tesla is certainly an enigmatic and mysterious figure. Stories about him abound and many may not be entirely true. It can be said for certain though that he was an unusual man. Over the course of his career he invented, or claimed to have invented, an earthquake machine, a thought camera, an artificial tidal wave, a supersonic airship, and an electric death ray capable of killing people on the opposite side of the planet.

Born in Serbia in 1856, Tesla immigrated to the United States at the age of 24 with nothing to call his own except the clothes he was wearing and four cents in his pocket. While the four cents story may be exaggerated, Tesla was certainly poor when he arrived in the US. Despite this disadvantage, he quickly became known as a visionary inventor. Upon arriving in the US, Tesla got a job at Edison Machine Works and became Edison’s protégé. He proved just as similar to Edison as he was adept at his job. Both men worked constantly. Edison once said, “Genius is one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration.” Both were brilliant inventors. It is safe to say that if the two had continued to work together the modern world would likely be a very different place than it is today.

Nikola Tesla, played by Tom Holland

Unfortunately, when Tesla began working on alternating current power, a more effective alternative to Edison’s direct current (DC), Edison did not take kindly to the idea. Tesla actually tried to present his blueprints to Edison but was vehemently rejected by his mentor. Soon after Tesla left Edison’s Menlo Park “invention factory” and founded his own lab. Left with nothing, Tesla funded his research in part by working long days of hard labor digging trenches for Edison’s wires.

George Westinghouse, played by Michael Shannon

Onto the scene arrived George Westinghouse, an incredibly wealthy industrialist who wanted to enter the electricity business but could not compete with Edison’s inventive genius. However, he certainly had enough money to provide Edison’s protégé-turned-nemesis with a very well-paying job. Together, Westinghouse and Tesla took on Edison Illuminating Company in a fight for, quite literally, the future of the world.

The war of currents was, at its heart, primarily fought in the court of public opinion. Certainly the most dramatic marketing strategy used in this battle, and perhaps the most dramatic marketing strategy ever, was employed by Edison when he began lobbying for animals, and eventually humans, to be executed using AC current. Edison publicly electrocuted numerous animals, including uncountable stray dogs and cats, several horses, and most famously an elephant. Edison is known to have referred to these executions as “getting Westinghoused”, and they were his primary form of marketing.

Far worse than the animal killings however was the execution of William Kemmler, the first ever prisoner to be electrocuted by electric chair. The man responsible for this horrible innovation was Alfred Southwick, a dentist from Buffalo who got the idea to conduct executions using electricity after hearing about a drunk man who died after touching a generator. After following in Edison’s footsteps and testing out the process on all the stray dogs and cats he could get his hands on, Southwick wrote to Edison at Menlo Park to ask his opinion. By all reports Edison’s initial reply was horrified. When Southwick wrote again a month later, however, Edison had changed his mind. He now heartily believed that execution by electric current was a very good idea, and strongly recommended Tesla’s AC current for the job. It took Kemmler four minutes to die. Westinghouse was reportedly horrified by the spectacle, but Edison only offered some advice. “The better way is to place the hands in jars of water,” he said. “And let the current be turned on there.”

The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair

After a years long war of currents, the winner was determined not gradually, as one would expect, but at a single moment during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Westinghouse Electric won the right to light the fair using AC by offering to complete the project at such a low bid that the company lost a lot of money. While Edison simply aimed to make a profit in the moment, Westinghouse rightly saw the fair as a symbol of the future. Even if he lost money, it would be worth it to demonstrate to the world the wonders of electricity using AC. He was right. When the lights turned on across the fair that night, the imagination of the world was forever captured by the brilliant light of AC power.

At one point in the movie trailer, Westinghouse boldly claims, “Westinghouse Electric shall endure”, and in some ways he was right. In 1999, more than 100 years after the war of currents, Westinghouse Electric officially became Westinghouse Nuclear. Today our society is yet again facing down the question of how we should get our power, and from whom. In an era when innovation is badly needed, we can only hope that The Current War inspires us with the same sense of awe for innovation felt by millions of people a mere century ago.

The Current War arrives in theaters on October 25th.



Former Editor in Chief of The City Voice, finally graduated City High Middle School as part of the Class of 2022.